Millions will remember Billy Graham for his life fully devoted to the Lord, his crusades, his clear communication of the gospel, the throngs coming forward to receive Christ, his visits with U.S. presidents, his commitment to the Scriptures and for finishing well.
Billy also left a legacy of personal integrity. This integrity was infused into his own organization and ministries he helped to start. The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) is just one of the ministries he helped launch.
I will remember Billy for his:
Wisdom. Billy’s wisdom was far-reaching, but I’ll especially remember how wise he was about hiring outstanding leaders. George Wilson was one of those men. George had been the business manager at Northwestern Schools (now the University of Northwestern—St. Paul) where Billy served as the president from 1948-52. When Billy left the college, George joined him at Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) as executive vice president, where he would serve until he retired in 1987. George was a visionary who liked to say of Christianity, “Our job is to dispense the world’s greatest product with the greatest economy to the greatest number of people as fast as possible.”
Joel Aarsvold, a CPA who had served with Peat, Marwick and Mitchell, was another outstanding leader who joined Graham’s organization in 1967. Joel served as the chief financial officer for BGEA for many years.
I personally experienced Billy’s wisdom in surrounding himself with strong individuals because ECFA was the beneficiary of the knowledge and leadership skills of George and Joel. George was named an honorary member of ECFA’s first board in 1979 and Joel served as our first board secretary.1
Discernment. Billy held to the principles of integrity in his evangelistic campaigns long before anyone thought of developing standards of excellence that would apply to all ministries.
During the Modesto, California campaign in 1948, Billy said, “there was little or no accountability for finances” in the ranks of evangelists.2 At that time, Billy, Grady Wilson and Cliff Barrows developed what Cliff would later call the “Modesto Manifesto.” It included principles of integrity in finances, in publicity, reporting the attendance at campaigns and more.3 This spoke volumes of Billy’s discernment.
Decisiveness. While leading a crusade in Portland in 1950, Billy raised money earmarked for radio evangelism. The local crusade committee collected all funds for the crusade and deposited them in a local bank account established for the meeting, but there was no bank account for radio evangelism gifts. Graham did not want to open a bank account under his own name because it would be subject to income tax. There was no bank account for what was simply known as the Graham-Barrows Campaigns. This was a problem.
Billy called George Wilson in Minneapolis for advice. He told George they had the money from the radio evangelism offering in a shoebox under the bed in the hotel. George suggested they incorporate so they could set up a bank account for the restricted gifts. Billy told him to bring whatever papers that were needed to Portland right away.4 It was this kind of decisiveness that led to officially forming the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Thirty years later, a small group of Christian leaders floated the idea of forming a peer accountability group. Churches and evangelical ministries would have the opportunity to subscribe to a set of common standards and be held accountable by the oversight organization.
It is little wonder that Billy immediately recognized the importance of forming this new organization that would be called the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA). Billy would be very instrumental in launching ECFA in 1979.
Perception. The day after the close of a 1950 Crusade in Atlanta, Billy’s photo appeared in a newspaper. An accompanying photo reflected two Crusade ushers who could barely wrap their arms around four bulging money sacks. “GRAHAM ‘LOVE’ OFFERING COLLECTED AT FINAL SERVICE,” read the caption.5 During this era, it was typical to support evangelists with love offerings.
Billy was embarrassed to learn that this offering was larger than the sum most clergy made in an entire year. Consequently, he gave away about a third of his portion of the offering. He was perceptive in then deciding to begin receiving a salary instead of love offerings. As Billy might have said, “The Bible says, ‘For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of men,’” (2 Cor. 8:21).
It has been nearly 40 years since this humble evangelist had a vision to help start ECFA. He recognized the importance for Christ-centered ministries committing to high standards of excellence. So, thank you, Billy. Human terms cannot measure your remarkable contribution to our ministry. It is a debt we can never repay. With deep gratitude, we resolve afresh to champion the legacy of financial accountability for generations to come, all for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
1Enhancing Trust: The ECFA Story, ECFAPress, 2016, 27,28.
2Billy Graham, Just As I Am, 1997, Harper Collins Worldwide, 128.
Top photo: Mourners honoring the late Rev. Graham included ECFA President Dan Busby and his wife (5th and 6th from left).